Homelessness is real on the Mid-Shore. As we sit snugly in our homes this winter, there is another population not quite so fortunate who might be “couch surfing” with family or friends, sleeping in cars, or even living in makeshift tents on the outskirts of our towns.
According to Julie Lowe, Executive Director of Talbot Interfaith Shelter (TIS), “Rurally, homelessness looks very different than in urban areas. Here on the Mid Shore, it can go unnoticed because it doesn’t look like the people we may see with signs asking for money on the streets in our cities.”
Lowe goes on to explain that many people hear the word “homeless” and it strikes fear in their hearts as they think of urban stories about people being robbed or hurt by people in the cities which might have mental illness or substance abuse. She adds that the reality in rural areas is that more of the people who become homeless have fallen on bad luck – lost jobs, illness, accidents, or divorce or changing family status.
Lowe adds, “The people who are homeless on the Mid Shore can go unnoticed because they want to be unnoticed. There is a stigma attached to homelessness. People judge you because they don’t understand how your situation happened.” She adds, “Many of these people are trying to piece it all together themselves and don’t want people to know their struggles. It is often a crisis, like cold weather, that has them coming to the doors of our shelters.”
Krista Pettit, executive director of Haven Ministries of Queen Anne’s County, adds that it is difficult to know the true number of homeless individuals on the Shore because the population is dispersed in a rural area. Funding for homeless programs are greater in the metropolitan areas where the numbers are more concentrated. According to Pettit and Lowe, because funding is limited in rural areas, partnerships with community organizations are crucial to meeting the needs, in particular, the role of the church community in meeting the needs.
Lowe adds, “The church model is how the Shore originally dealt with the homeless population in the winter months. Through a rotating seasonal shelter, communities were able to offer shelter in the evenings for people in need in area churches.”
Talbot Interfaith Shelter was a rotating church model for six years, rotating during the winter season between seven to 10 churches and the Synagogue, before finding a permanent shelter location in Easton two years ago. Haven Ministries Shelter has also operated as a church model for the past 12 years, utilizing Kent Island United Methodist Church in Stevensville as its seasonal shelter location. Both TIS and Haven Ministries still utilize churches to provide funding, meals, and volunteers to help run their shelters.
Lowe comments, “There seems to be more acceptance of the church model and more stigma associated with a permanent shelter.”
Pettit adds, “Churches are shelters for the shelter.”
Both Lowe and Pettit agree that the neighborly feeling in rural areas contributes to the communities taking care of their own. Many people have grown up volunteering in the church shelter model, but as a new generation comes of age, many have never had the experience.
Pettit adds, “There is now need to educate the next generation about how they can volunteer and help with this issue.”
The issue today with homelessness can be complex. According to Lowe and Pettit, people don’t realize how hard it is for people with children to get jobs because of the issues around child care in our rural areas. Other issues involve the availability of mental health treatment/counseling, and getting proper documentation (birth certificates, Social Security numbers, and driver’s licenses). With the Shore’s immigrant population, there can also be language barriers and an insular community to contend with.
Jeanine Beasley, Continuum of Care Manager at Shore Behavioral Health, the core service agency for behavioral health in the five counties on the Mid Shore, comments, “Like most rural areas, there are limited resources to deal with the issues surrounding homelessness. In the area of mental health treatment/counseling, it can take a while to be seen by a mental health provider. Talbot Interfaith Shelter and Haven Ministries both have partnerships with area outpatient mental health providers – For All Seasons and Corsica River Mental Health – which can help address these issues more quickly.”
In addition to mental health issues, Beasley points to the lack of affordable housing and sustainable employment as other issues facing our communities today. She adds, “There is a lack of awareness about this issue on the Mid Shore. Most people don’t understand the reasons people find themselves in these difficult situations. Not everyone has a safety net of family and friends to help them when a crisis happens. Both TIS and Haven Ministries are trying to help their clients build that safety net to help them get back on their feet.”
Pettit states, “Year to year, the age of clients in our shelter can vary. Because you have to be 18 or older to stay alone in a shelter, there are issues with youth homelessness in our county. We are now exploring ways to address this.” She adds, “There are also issues with the elderly due to financial and health issues, being disconnected from family, and having no support systems.”
The goal of both TIS and Haven Ministries is to get shelter clients stabilized through case management services so that their clients can transition into housing of their own. Both communities face challenges in finding affordable transitional housing. Talbot Interfaith Shelter partners with the Housing Commission of Talbot to provide apartments to their families transitioning into their own housing.
According to Carlene Phoenix, Deputy Director of the Housing Commission of Talbot, “Although Talbot County is one of the wealthiest counties in the state of Maryland, we need more affordable housing units for our workforce. Specifically, we need more income-based units for our minimum wage earners.”
Phoenix explains that although The Housing Choice Voucher Program (formerly Section 8 Program) can help provide rental assistance for housing for eligible families, the program’s federal funding is not at a level to meet the needs in Talbot County.
Until some of these changes occur, individuals and families on the Mid Shore face the reality of quietly piecing together resources to meet their changing needs when crisis happens – often going unnoticed in our communities.
For information about how you can help with rural homelessness by volunteering, partnering, or donating to either Talbot Interfaith Shelter in Talbot County or Haven Ministries in Queen Anne’s County, call Julie Lowe (TIS) at 410-310-2316 or Krista Pettit (Haven Ministries) at 410-739-4363.